THE FUTURE OF WAR, A HISTORY

Reviewed by: Andrew Livsey

Lawrence Friedman has written quite a good book. That is to say that it’s better than most, but given the author’s eminence it is also a genuine disappointment.
Friedman tells us in broadly chronological sequence, from 1870 to the present, the predictions people have made about what the next war will unfold. He draws out the consistent tendency to overestimate the effect of a single blow and thus to underestimate the duration and cost of wars. Towards the end he also considers current trends in warfare, arguing for a shift in the use of violence from being a tool of states to something used by gangs. As you’d expect the book is clearly written and the narrative robustly footnoted.
The fundamental problem is that Friedman does the groundwork in justifying his point, that people are serially overconfident in their predictions of the speed with which a war can be won, and then doesn’t take it any further. The reason seems to be that he hasn’t engaged with the relevant literature. There is a significant body of work on overconfidence in war to which Friedman seems oblivious, with Dominic Johnson just one among many drawing the link between human psychology and decision making. The literature on prediction is also ignored. Philip Tetlock is the leader here but Nate Silver and others also have much of value to say, with significant long-term studies providing valuable evidence.
When Friedman comes to discuss the future of war there are a few useful points but again it seems that his engagement with the theoretical literature is sporadic. He has a reasonable grasp of applied robotics but for artificial intelligence he would have benefited from noting some of the key distinctions between human and computer intelligence made in articles such as by Ken Payne. Similarly, though he mentions the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) he seems to have read little of their work. Meanwhile views on the efficacy of his attack on Pinker’s contention in Better Angels of Our Nature that mankind is getting less violent will vary, but I found it unpersuasive. Much of his argument seemed to hang on the casualty figures for a single conflict, which does not really engage with Pinker’s key point.
It is only fair to say that the view expressed here is that of an outlier. Every one of the umpteen other reviews of this book I’ve found has been glowing with praise. I rather hope that someone writes in to tell me what I’ve missed. Pending that however I need give you a conclusion. It is this: Friedman has written a better book than I or most of us could write, with a persuasive narrative, but he could have done much more in drawing out the implications and reasons behind the events. This is, it seems, because of an engagement with the literature which is so patchy I’d be wary in using this book as an indication of relevant material. Borrow it from a library if you will, but there are plenty of others produced this year that have a better claim to a permanent place on your shelf.